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Pakistan Cracks Down on Social Media Activists for Criticizing Army

FIEL - A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan, August 11, 2016.
FIEL - A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan, August 11, 2016.

Authorities in Pakistan have unleashed a crackdown on social media activists accused of criticizing and "ridiculing" the army in their online postings.

An official announcement late Sunday said the cyber crime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been ordered to swiftly move against "elements" who are engaging in these "condemnable" activities.

"Ridiculing [the] Pakistan army or its officers on social media in the name of freedom of speech is unacceptable" and "a serious offense" under the law, it quoted Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan as warning.

Khan explained that the constitution does not permit citizens to indulge in activities that undermine the "prestige, reputation and honor" of the military institution.

The minister directed the FIA to take strict action against anyone found guilty of posting the content on social media "intentionally or unintentionally."

Military criticized

The crackdown comes amid sustained criticism of the military for issuing a controversial statement days before it was recanted last week. The move purportedly undermined the authority of civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The civil-military rift stemmed from a controversial article in a leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, published last October that suggested the army was reluctant to crack down on Islamic militants plotting attacks against neighboring Afghanistan and India from sanctuaries on Pakistani soil.

The report outraged the military leadership at the time, pressuring the Sharif government to set up a high-powered commission to investigate the matter and identify officials responsible for leaking information about a security meeting chaired by the prime minister himself.

The commission submitted its findings late last month, prompting Sharif to oust a key foreign policy aide along with a senior information ministry bureaucrat for allegedly leaking details of the top-level meeting to the media.

Hours after the prime minister’s office announced the removals, the military "rejected" Sharif’s actions as "incomplete," refueling speculations of a showdown between the civilian and military institutions.

But the lingering crisis defused last week when the military unexpectedly announced it had resolved the "Dawn Leaks" row with the government and had retracted its statement that "rejected" Sharif’s actions as incomplete.

Reaction mixed

Opposition parties criticized the government for not making the inquiry report public while social media activists slammed the army for agreeing to maintain secrecy on the whole issue.

Pro-democracy groups, however, have declared it a rare victory for civilian leaders over army generals in a country where tensions between the two in the past have prompted military leaders to oust elected governments and impose years of dictatorial rules.

The last military coup in Pakistan was staged in October 1999 ousting Sharif’s then-elected government before he was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia along with his family.

Sharif returned to Pakistan after almost eight years, and his party won the 2013 election to return him to power for a third time in the country's troubled democratic history.